No more INXS baggage for Lovehammers


February 3, 2006


In the eyes of many viewers, Chicagoan Marty Casey suffered a heartbreaking loss when he made it to the final round as one of two singers vying to replace Michael Hutchence on TV's "Rock Star: INXS," only to lose to a former Elvis impersonator. But if you ask me, he was the real winner.

I first met Casey and his long-time bandmates in what was then the Swinging Lovehammers in a parking lot at O'Hare in 1998 as they were flying to Austin, Texas, to perform at the South by Southwest Music & Media Conference. They clearly believed in themselves and their music, and they were committed to working as hard as possible to bring their sound -- a mix of old-school hard rock, Midwestern power-pop and a hint of Foo Fighters-style alternative -- to as big an audience as possible.

Casey and the rhythm section of Dino and Bobby Kourelis met as 10-year-olds playing T-ball in west suburban Hickory Hills. They formed the band during freshman year of high school and played for their friends. "Someone's parents would be out of town or out to dinner on a Saturday night," Casey says, "and we would set up the equipment in their living room and start playing."

Over the years, the group built a strong following via the usual indie-rock methods: independent releases, low-budget touring and constant gigging, getting to a point where they could headline at the Vic Theatre. But breaking through to the next level proved daunting -- until Casey got a call last year from a friend who recommended he audition for a new TV show, a hipper version of the dreaded "American Idol."

"I was intrigued," Casey says. "I had never, ever tried out for anything or played with anyone outside of the Lovehammers. I always had [guitarist] Billy [Sawilchik] and Bobby and Dino behind me, like the Chicago Mafia; they would never let anyone say anything bad about me! I wasn't thinking of getting on the show and going as far as I did; it was like, 'I'm going to go to this audition and see what I've got as a solo performer.'"

The audition proved to be the start of a seven-month ordeal, including 12 weeks of taping. Casey claims he has never watched the show -- "I lived it!" -- and treated the whole roller-coaster ride as a lark and way to win the Lovehammers their big break.

"I have a hard time looking back at it and actually believing that it's me, because I feel like I got abducted by aliens and now I've been set back here on Earth and everything just happens to be a little different," Casey says. "My family was trying to get me to watch the show with them and share any gory details about what really happened, but I told them, 'I just don't really want to watch it.'"

When the singer told his bandmates he'd be doing the show, they reacted with 45 minutes of stunned silence, and the bad feelings grew from there. "They were freaked out, and really, really upset, and I completely understood. Before, I had never taken a trip, whether to Europe or Mexico, where I hadn't come back early because we had a super-great gig in Madison, Wis., or wherever on Saturday night."

During their singer's absence, Lovehammers made the best of things, doing special gigs with guest vocalists after screenings of the show and rooting for their childhood friend -- until the final round.

"If they could have called me at that point, they would have said, 'OK, now it's time to lose,'" Casey says, laughing. "And honestly, when I was standing up there at the last moment and I was ready for them to either choose me or J.D. [Fortune], in my heart I was like, 'Pick J.D.' I didn't feel that way through the rest of the competition. But I have been in Lovehammers for 16 years, and I knew that the members of INXS could understand that kind of dedication, because they've been doing it for 25 years."

In the end, Casey allegedly lost, as INXS chose Fortune to shift from being a fake Elvis to imitating another dead singer. But as I said, Casey was the real winner.

After a decade and a half in the trenches, Lovehammers are releasing their first major-label album for Epic, a self-titled disc that includes songs from throughout their career, among them "Trees," the tune that garnered such attention on the show.

The group is now managed by Doc McGee -- whose clients have included Kiss, Motley Crue and Bon Jovi -- and who was alone among the people approaching Casey after the show to recommend that he stick with Lovehammers, rather than going solo.

Finally, Marty Casey & Lovehammers are opening for INXS on their first jaunt with their new lead singer (in a sold-out show at the Chicago Theatre on Saturday night). I, for one, have little doubt that they will be the better band onstage, as well as the one with the brighter future.


Speaking of rock on television, we're only two episodes into the new sitcom "Love Monkey" -- the third airs Tuesday at 9 p.m. on WBBM-Channel 2 -- but I'm hooked. This is TV's smartest, funniest look inside the music business since -- well, ever.

The show follows a smart, talented but emotionally insecure guy named Tom (Tom Cavanagh from "Ed") who works as a record company A&R man or talent scout, combining the best elements of the heroes in "Almost Famous," "Jerry Maguire" and "High Fidelity." (Cameron Crowe and list-making author Nick Hornby are clearly the big influences here.) An idealistic music geek, Tom is fired from his cushy major-label gig and turns to an indie, where he hopes to emphasize artistry over industry.

While I agree with my TV-critiquing colleague Doug Elfman that the third of the show devoted to Tom's interactions with his three manly-men buddies is pretty dumb (nowhere near as sharp as "Entourage," but not as bad as "Four Kings," either), I'm watching because every music business character so far -- from Tom to Eric Bogosian as a satanic major-label president to the jangly emo singer Wayne (Teddy Geiger), and from Britney Spears clone Zoe (Natalie Zvereva) to the lame Jewel-like folk singer (Milena Govich) -- has been spot-on, and wickedly funny.

Add in a string of cameos (Ben Folds, LeAnn Rimes), cool rock locations (C.B.G.B., the Chelsea Hotel) and a good soundtrack, and you have a winner, though, like the record industry itself, its days are probably numbered, so enjoy it while it lasts.